The United States is often known as the “melting pot of cultures” due to centuries of immigration. As a result, the languages of the United States are certainly some of the most diverse of any country we’ve covered to date!
Whilst in the English-speaking world, the US is known for speaking English, there are literally thousands of languages spoken in the US, ranging from high-spoken languages like Spanish, to Native American languages only a few people speak…
Official Languages of The United States
It may surprise you, but according to the Constitution, the US has never (and shall never) have an official language, due to America’s position as the “Melting pot of nations” and the myriad of different languages that comes with it.
With that being said, however, there are three main languages that essentially act as the de facto languages of the United States in varying degrees…
In many regards, English is the official language of the US. It is the most spoken language in the United States by a longshot, being spoken by 87% of the US population as a first language.
On top of this, roughly 80% of the remaining 13% of the US population speak English as a second language to a fluent or near-native level.
Due to this, almost the entire US government is done in English. If you were to visit the mayor of a small town in Vermont, they’d greet you in English, the same if you went to the US Senate!
For the most part, this is a byproduct of British colonial rule. What was then-known as the Thirteen Colonies was first colonized by the British, who spoke brought their language with them.
As such, when the Thirteen Colonies became independent and became the United States, they still continued to speak English, even after the British had left. This has continued to this day.
With that being said, the Founding Fathers wanted to distance themselves from the British they’d fought so hard to get away from. As such, they created their own dialect of English, known as American English, which is very different to British English.
Whilst the northeast of what is now the United States was colonized by the English-speaking British, much of the south and southeast was colonized by Spain, as a part of its “New Spain” colony.
Over the course of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, much of New Spain won its independence from Spain, forming a number of countries that are still around today, namely Mexico.
Here, Mexico owned much of the modern-day southern United States. By the mid-19th century, many in the north of Mexico (what’s now the southern United Sates) began to demand their own independence so they could join the US.
This in turn led to the Mexican-American War, which was a US victory. These northern Mexican states joined the US, having both large populations of English speakers and Spanish speakers.
Fast forward to today, many of these Spanish speakers’ descendants still continue to speak Spanish at home, even if they do also speak English to a fairly high standard!
On top of this, the last 30 years have seen a huge increase in migration from South America to the US, where they’ve settled seemingly in every major US city in the north, south, east and west!
As of the time of writing, the US government estimates that there are roughly 41 million people in the US who speak Spanish to a native level, or roughly 14% of the US population.
Whilst the south and southwest was colonized by Spain and much of the northeast was colonized by Britain, they were by no means the only powers to colonize the US. So did France.
In fact, much of the American Midwest was colonized by France as a part of their “New France” territory (although much of the northern part of that territory now comprises much of modern-day Canada, mainly the Quebec region!)
Over time, France was forced to cede much of this territory to Britain, due to France losing a series of wars against Britain. In 1803, France sold its remaining territory to the United States, in what’s become known as the Louisiana Purchase.
Although France hasn’t controlled this territory for well over 200 years, many descendants of the first French colonists still continue to speak French, especially in the formerly French states of Louisiana and Illinois.
On top of this, the last 50 years has seen a number of French-speaking immigrants from places like Haiti, come to the US in search of a better life. Here, they have often settled in the former French states, where they’ve continued to speak French on a regular basis.
According to the most recent government statistics, there are roughly 2.1 million native French speakers spread throughout the United States, mostly in Illinois and Louisiana, but also in New England (on the border with French-speaking Quebec).
Indigenous Languages of The United States
It should probably go without saying, but there are literally thousands of languages spoken by thousands of little Native American tribes. For the purposes of this article, we have only focused on the major ones…
At one point in time, much of the midwestern and western United States used to be inhabited by tribes that spoke Navajo, with it acting sort of like a lingua franca between the various tribes in the area.
However, once the Spanish and British colonized these areas, these local tribes were wiped out by wars and plague. For the Navajo language, this was been devastating, killing the vast majority of its speakers.
Over time, thanks to things like Manifest Destiny, what remained of the Navajo people and language were killed off almost in its entirety.
What remained of the tribe were then haphazardly placed on Native American reserves before being moved around constantly, causing many more Navajo speakers to simply stop speaking the language all together.
Seeing the decline in the number of speakers of Native American languages like Navaho, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson enacted the Bilingual Education Act, which allowed Native American languages Navajo to be taught in school.
Thanks to this, Navajo has seen a resurgence in recent years, mostly with the children of Navajo tribesmen who’ve long since forgotten the language. A few non-Native American children have also learned the language too!
As of the time of writing, Navajo is by far the most spoken Native American language. Whilst originally one of the most spoken languages in the country, it is now only spoken by approximately 170,000 people.
Today, this is mostly isolated to the Navajo Nation Indian reserve, in parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado.
Most famously, the Dakota tribe has led their name to two US states: North Dakota and South Dakota, where the most of the tribe was originally located.
However, what you probably didn’t know was that the Dakota tribe are still around, with their language still being somewhat widespread.
Although they were originally located in what’s now the Dakotas, European colonization was as devastating for the Dakotas it was for the Navajos, with the Dakota being split between modern-day Canada and the United States.
Naturally, this has caused many Dakotas to simply stop speaking their ancestral language. Even with the introduction of President Johnson’s Bilingual Education Act, many Dakotas simply haven’t learned Dakota.
According to the US government, the Dakota language is critically endangered, due to the fact it only has 290 native speakers left, although there are a total of 19,000 second-language Dakota speakers.
Virgin Islands Creole
Ok, technically speaking, Virgin Islands Creole isn’t technically a Native American language. Instead, it’s actually a English-based creole language, and no, it’s not even isolated to the United States, but rather the Virgin Islands as a whole.
You see, when the British brought West African slaves to the New World to work on plantations, many of them couldn’t understand each other, due to coming from different ethnolinguistic groups in West Africa.
Many of them attempted to learn each other’s languages, all to no avail. Instead, many began to subconsciously understand English, which they merged together with the various West African languages the slaves spoke.
For the most part, English was used as the base, whilst West African grammar and words were bolted on to the English foundation. On the Virgin Islands archipelago, this created the Virgin Islands Creole.
Fast forward several hundred years, and the Virgin Islands still speak Virgin Islands Creole. Today, both the Puerto Rican Virgin Islands and the US Virgin Islands are under US control.
According to the US government, there are roughly 75,000 speakers of Virgin Islands Creole on the US and Puerto Rican Virgin Islands, all of whom also speak English, due to the two languages having a large degree of mutual intelligibility.
Immigrant Languages of The United States
Since its discovery in 1492, the New World has been a haven for immigrants. Even well over 500 years later, the US in particular is still a haven for immigrants, who often bring their languages to the country…
Today, pretty much everyone is familiar with the large Italian-American community in the US, especially on the east coast. If not from famous films like The Godfather, then from the tales of infamous mobsters like Al Capone…
What many don’t realize, however, is that whilst most Italian-Americans have stopped speaking Italian, many still do, having taught it to their children and their grandchildren, who’ve done the same in turn!
The first mass migrations of Italians to US happened during the 1850’s/1860’s during the wars of Italian Unification. Whilst unification was mostly peaceful, it wasn’t entirely, with several bloody wars being fought, creating thousands of refugees, who often fled to the US.
The second mass migration happened during 1880’s, most of whom were simply searching for a better life, which Italy couldn’t offer at the time. On both occasions, these Italians moved to the northeast, settling mainly in the state of New York.
For the most part, migration from Italy to the US would be intermediate for the next 150 years, with people mostly migrating to the US following WWII.
As of the time of writing, there are a little more than 15 million people who identify as Italian-American spread throughout the United States, of them, 750,000 still speak Italian at home!
Once the Thirteen Colonies gained their independence, the first boats of German immigrants began arriving in the country. Here, they were often fleeing the numerous wars that befell the numerous tiny German states in the wake of Napoleon’s conquest.
As time progressed, German immigrants to the US were one of the few things that remained constant. Unlike other nationalities, these first German immigrants didn’t settle in pre-existing cities, instead moving west as a part of Manifest Destiny.
By the early 20th century, however, most new German immigrants chose to live in pre-existing cities, particularly places like Pennsylvania New York City, where many families soon established themselves among the local elite.
Prior to WWI, German was the most spoken language in many major American cities, alongside Italian. During WWI, however, anti-German sentiment caused many German-Americans to stop speaking German, and start speaking English, even anglicizing their German names.
Following WWII, there would be a mass exodus of Germans from Germany, with many Germans choosing to settle in the US. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was similarly a mass migration of Germans to the US, this time from East Germany.
All things considered, German is still quite widely spoken as a first language, being spoken by roughly 1.1 million Americans, most of whom live in Michigan.
Over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Jewish community in Europe saw a number of laws passed which removed much of their remaining rights, particularly in Russia, with their pogroms.
Tired of this, many European Jews chose to migrate to the US, where they had been promised a new life, whilst still having more rights than they’d enjoyed in centuries. As such, Jewish immigrants from Europe arrived by the thousands.
Here, they moved en masse to cities like New York, where entire areas of the cities became wholly Jewish, with the local communities building synagogues (where they’d use Hebrew) and having kosher shops and butchers.
Following WWII, many of Germany’s Jews would understandably leave the country, with many going to Israel, which had been given to them by the Allies. Many, however, chose to move to the US, which still had a sizeable Jewish population.
Since then, the Jewish community has thrived in the US, with many having gone from simple refugees to some of the most richest and powerful people in the country in only a few generations!
According to the US government, there are roughly seven million Hebrew speakers in the US, most of whom use it solely as a liturgical language, whilst at the synagogue.
The first Chinese immigrants arrived in the US in the late 19th century. Here, they were fleeing the ethnic turmoil and social immobility that was plaguing China at the time, with the US seeming like the best place to start fresh.
Due to this, Chinese-speaking immigrants arrived to the US en masse and settled wherever was free, often in California and Hawaii. Here, these immigrants mostly spoke Cantonese, rather than Mandarin.
As with many other large ethnolinguistic groups that migrate to a certain place, the hundreds of thousands of Chinese people lived in only a few square blocks, dubbed by the locals as “Chinatowns” many of which still stand today!
Over time, many more Chinese people have migrated to the US. Unlike their predecessors, many of these Chinese immigrants spoke dialects like Mandarin, Wu and Formosan, rather than Cantonese.
Much like their predecessors, however, these immigrants too settled in California’s Chinatowns. However, many also moved to places like New York, Texas and New Jersey, where they established their own Chinatowns.
Currently, the US government estimates that there are around 3.5 million native Chinese speakers spread throughout the US, most of whom speak either Cantonese or Mandarin.
In recent years, the Arabic World has proven to incredibly unstable politically speaking. As such, many have fled the country in search of a more politically stable one. Often, this has been the United States.
Usually, these Arabic-speaking immigrants are high-skilled, such as engineers and doctors, who often apply their trade in the US. Due to this, there aren’t many large “Mini-Middle Easts” in the US.
However, just because there aren’t many large ones, doesn’t mean that there aren’t many. In fact, there are just as many low-skilled Arabic-speaking immigrants to the US as high-skilled ones!
With this, many of the low-skilled immigrants come to live in the immigrant hotspots of many towns and cities. Here, these Arabic-speaking immigrants often congregate to form their own isolated “Mini-Middle Easts”.
As of the time of writing, the US government estimates that there are roughly 1.5 million native Arabic-speaking people spread throughout the entirety of the United States.
With that being said, the majority are located in the northeast, mostly in New York and Philadelphia. Other large populations of Arabic speakers are located in Detroit, Michigan, Seattle, Washington and San Francisco, California too!
What do you think of the languages of the United States? Do you speak any of them (besides English of course!)? Tell me in the comments!